CHAPEL HILL — Larry Fedora said at the start of training camp that the competition for North Carolina’s starting quarterback job would continue until one of the four candidates separated himself from the others.
With less than a week to go before Saturday’s season opener against California, that separation still hasn’t happened. Or perhaps the Tar Heels coach, as he’s done in the past, is just prolonging the suspense by waiting until the last minute to go public with his decision.
Either way, someone will have to be under center for the first snap.
If the depth chart issued by UNC on Monday is any indication, it could be either graduate transfer Brandon Harris, heralded redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt or sophomore Nathan Elliott — all of whom have the word OR in bold capital letters next to their names. But Fedora isn’t tipping his hand on who will start or how many quarterbacks will play against the Bears at Kenan Stadium.
“We could go with one, we could go with two, we could go with three,” Fedora said. “We could possibly go with four.”
Redshirt freshman Logan Byrd is the other quarterback in the equation to replace Mitch Trubisky, the second overall selection in this year’s NFL draft
Asked Monday if the shuffling and continued uncertainty was the result of quarterback candidates being so good or so bad, Fedora chuckled and said, “I guess Saturday will determine that, won’t it?
“The extension of it,” he said of the ongoing competition for the job,“ has been because nobody has separated themselves.”
Of all the candidates, though, one is on a faster and higher trajectory than the others. Surratt’s rapid rise up the pecking order since the start of camp has solidified Fedora’s belief that he’s a star in the making and that he might be ready to take over the team’s leadership role sooner rather than later.
“I think he’s gotten quite a bit better than he was last year,” Fedora said of the 2015 Parade Magazine national high school Player of the Year. “I think that is just a full year into it and understanding the expectations and how we practice and what the focus has to be each day to be an elite quarterback.“
Sitting behind Trubisky for a year and watching him and watching how he approached each and every day and what he did was really good for him.”
Surratt came to UNC as the crown jewel of Fedora’s 2016 recruiting class after setting state prep records with 16,593 career yards and 229 combined passing and rushing touchdowns. The dual-threat athlete was originally slated to take over as the Tar Heels’ starter in 2018, but all that changed when Trubisky unexpectedly emerged as a top NFL prospect and left a year early.
Faced with the prospect of being caught without a game-ready quarterback this season, Fedora brought in Harris from LSU as a potential stopgap.
It’s a decision he said he would make again even if he’d have anticipated Surratt’s rapid emergence.
“I would have done it exactly like we did it,” Fedora said. “I wouldn’t have changed that because Brandon brings something that none of the guys have, his game experience. We needed somebody in that room with game experience.”
Even though he started 12 games over the past two seasons at LSU, Harris still had to learn an entirely new offense when he arrived in Chapel Hill this summer. He struggled early with things such as footwork and the terminology of the Tar Heels’ spread attack, but he has impressed Fedora with his ability to pick up on things quickly.
“He’s improved quite a bit in the few weeks that he has been here just as far as the communication and understanding the offense and what we expect,” Fedora said. “I am comfortable with where he is right now.”
He’s also comfortable with waiting until the 11th hour before deciding who will start the opening game. It’s something he did two seasons ago with favorable results — when Marquise Williams eventually beat out Trubisky and led UNC to 11 wins and an ACC Coastal Division title.“
It’s very similar, other than that year it was probably just two guys that really had a legitimate shot,” Fedora said. “I think we have an opportunity to have more guys than just two this year.
“We’ve got guys that are competing for a job. We were hoping somebody would separate sooner than now. It hasn’t happened. That doesn’t change our plan, the way we go forward.”